Columbia Pro Cantare covers it all in 'A Christmas Noel'

When Columbia Pro Cantare performs "A Christmas Noel" on Sunday, Dec. 15, at 3 p.m., at Christ Episcopal Church in Columbia, the audience can expect an eclectic program. It'll offer everything from the 17th-century Renaissance piece "O Magnum Mysterium" to contemporary pieces written within the last few years.

Columbia Pro Cantare music director Frances Motyca Dawson will cover all of that musical territory as she leads her choral group's 28-voice Chamber Singers. They'll be accompanied by Alison Gatwood on piano, Frank Rittermann on piano and organ, and Greg McDonald on percussion.

Although the audience certainly will hear such familiar Christmas carols as "Deck the Halls," "Oh Holy Night" and "Sussex Carol," much of the program will be devoted to seasonal selections from a variety of cultural sources.

The concert-opening "African Noel," for example, is a contemporary piece that was arranged by Andre Thomas for its original performance by St. Olaf's Choir in Minnesota. This English-language, African-themed selection includes congas and a tambourine in its instrumental accompaniment.

Additional international influences will be heard in the West Indian-derived "The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy" and also in a Basque selection, "Bailero." In the latter piece, one soloist stands on stage and another stands up in the church balcony as they assume the roles of shepherds in the mountains calling out to each other.

A selection combining new and old elements is "The Darkest Night." It was composed by the contemporary American composer Stephen Main, who uses an 18th-century Irish text for his musically impressionistic piece.

Another contemporary composition is just as varied in terms of the musical influences it reflects. The New York-based Norwegian composer Ola Gjielo's "Tota Pulchra Es" has its text in Latin.

Surveying the 15 compositions on the upcoming program, music director Dawson observed: "I don't try to do it chronologically at all, but try to vary the emotional continuum of the program. It's the rise and fall of the emotional material."

Some of the pieces on this year's program, such as "African Noel," are repeats from last year's "Christmas Noel."

Dawson said her strategy for this annual Christmas concert is to have "one-third new pieces each year, and others that we have not sung in five or six years."

As for how she judges whether a piece qualifies as an audience favorite that merits repeating the following year, Dawson said she keeps track of how people respond at the end of a piece.

"There is an audible sigh that comes from some people in the church," Dawson noted. "There is a stillness (at the end of a piece) and then the exhalation. I call it the sigh factor."

Columbia Pro Cantare Chamber Singers perform "A Christmas Noel" on Sunday, Dec. 15, at 3 p.m., at Christ Episcopal Church, 6800 Oakland Mills Road in Columbia. Tickets are $15, $13 for seniors and students, in advance; $17 and $15, respectively, at the door. Call 410-799-9321 or go to

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